Web-only retailer Betabrand lets online shoppers vote on images instead of physical prototypes of new products, cutting the design time and making a successful launch more likely.

Brands typically design a new garment or accessory like this: Designers spend months coming up with ideas that managers then debate. Once they settle on a winner, they manufacture small quantities for tests. Months after the process begins, the brand may introduce the new product.

Betabrand Inc. says it has a way to cut that development cycle to a few weeks by letting consumers in on the process from the start.

The web-only retailer is experienced in getting consumer feedback because it’s built a business on showing website visitors samples of new designs and taking their orders in advance. If at least 100 shoppers agree to buy the product, the e-retailer places an order for the item to be made and ships it to the customers a few months later.

Are pictures as good as prototypes in testing new product designs

More than 1,000 customers agreed to buy the Gilda bag from Betabrand before it was made.

But that process required the brand offering the product to go through the lengthy process of selecting from the many creations its designers come up with and then manufacturing a prototype. Now, Betabrand is enabling brands to show many options to consumers by using digital imagery instead of physical mock-ups.


Betabrand is working with Li & Fung Ltd., a Hong Kong-based company that connects Western brands with Asian manufacturers and manages the transportation of products to global markets. The company booked $16.8 billion in sales last year, an 11% decline that it attributed in part to e-commerce disrupting the traditional manufacturing supply chain by enabling online retailers to connect directly with consumers. The company announced in March a $150 million technology investment plan that includes using digital versions of products to speed product design.

The opportunity to connect with consumers, rapidly test different iterations and see how the consumer reacts is invaluable.

Chris Lindland, CEO and founder of Betabrand, says Li & Fung is providing the online retailer with high-quality images of products, including versions that show products with many options, such as a variety of colors and fabrics, buttons and zippers.

That allows Betabrand to show shoppers various versions of products, get their feedback and then offer the one that’s most popular. Its first attempt led to the Gilda Bag, a handbag that more than 1,000 consumers agreed to buy in two weeks. The retail price is $148, but those who “crowdfund” the design by placing advance orders get a 15% discount, bringing the price down to $133.20 for them.

“If you can present a product in a beautiful, believable manner, the consumers learn everything they need to know and they can just as easily buy from a rendering as a photo of a prototype,” Lindland says. “What’s exciting for the industry is that there’s a huge amount of time and waste that goes into the iterative process inside of companies to determine what prototype No. 1 is. Most of that time is wasted.

“We find consumers are thrilled to be voting to make decisions on colors, trims, buttons and all the details that add up to a product. And being able to visualize it as something real makes for a new and better consumer experience.”


While Li & Fung is using digital samples to show retailers, its collaboration with Betabrand is its first attempt to involve consumers directly in the design process, says president Robert Sinclair. He says this online initiative reduces “the product development cycle from 15 weeks to 4 weeks, eliminating the waste and cost of producing samples that never make their way to production and getting to a final product that is almost 100% accurate for sell-through to the consumer.”

Betabrand, No. 585 in the Internet Retailer Top 1000, has also begun working with such apparel brands as The North Face and Timberland, both part of VF Corp., to test new designs using imagery. VF Corp. is No. 91 in the Top 1000.

The North Face brought to Betabrand a “mountain sweatshirt” concept, a garment with three layers, including a “buttery soft, peach-lined interior.” “We had a ton of iterations of this product,” says Sumi Scott, senior director of sales at The North Face. “So it was the perfect thing to quickly get on Betabrand’s site where we could have multiple sketches with different feature sets, different silhouettes and get a read on what people respond to.”

After testing three designs, The North Face settled on one that Betabrand offered in two colors. Some 1,500 consumers placed orders, and Betabrand plans to add a third color. Betabrand’s Lindland projects 3,000 orders will be placed before the e-retailer cuts off orders.

From the time the last order is placed, it usually takes Betabrand three months to have the product manufactured and delivered to the customers. In the case of this sweatshirt, Scott says it will be December before buyers get the garment because of manufacturing capacity constraints.


Nonetheless, she says the collaboration with Betabrand significantly accelerated the design process from the typical 18 months to three months. “This is something where we can be really nimble, read and react,” she says.

Scott expects The North Face will try this process again with other products. “The speed to market in retail is changing so rapidly now,” she says. “The opportunity to connect with consumers, curate our own marketing message and rapidly test different iterations and see how the consumer reacts is invaluable.”